BMCR 2023.01.06

Gods, spirits, and worship in the Greco-Roman world and early Christianity

, , Gods, spirits, and worship in the Greco-Roman world and early Christianity. Jewish and Christian texts in contexts and related studies, 23. London; New York: T & T Clark, 2022. Pp. 280. ISBN 9780567703262.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume contains twelve papers by twelve authors, including both editors, that claims to offer “innovative studies that focus on the ways Jews and Christians in late antiquity appropriated, interpreted, and presented afresh the sacred traditions of the past”. It looks like a somewhat haphazard collection, which might be because it is a Festschrift, a type of publication that usually features rather arbitrary compilations, dedicated to Hans Dieter Betz on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. Whether it was conceived as a Festschrift is, however, not elucidated in the introduction, which does not tell anything about how this collection of papers came about. One would expect the rather eclectic set of contributors (three of whom are without an academic affiliation, one of whom is a doctoral student at Helsinki, and anontheer a graduate student at Saskatchewan) to stand in some relationship to Betz, but according to the introduction only “some … had the good fortune to study with Betz”. So we are left to wonder what brought these authors together.

The present volume is said to be the first to include “non-Jewish and non-Christian” Greek and Roman religion amongst the “sacred traditions of the past”—which generally speaking does not make sense, but which might hold good for the series ‘Studies in Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity’ (of which this volume 23), and the overarching series ‘Jewish and Christian texts in contexts and related studies’ (of which this is volume 36). It is rather shocking that “contexts” up to now did not include ‘pagans’—because, as the introduction says, the ways in which polytheists made use of their tradition shows many similarities to and indeed will have functioned as a model for Jewish and Christian practices. The shock is not exactly mitigated by sentences such as: “There were many ancient cults in and around the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. There were also a number of popular goddesses who attracted widespread attention.” (151). The editors should have cut these lines—unless they think that the intended readership for this volume has to be reminded of such truisms, which would be beyond shocking.

Of the twelve papers collected here, nine indeed look at the nexus between the polytheistic and the Jewish-Christian world. Two deal with religious dynamics within polytheistic circles only, and one deals with the mystifications surrounding the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Papers vary widely in length, which makes the volume appear somewhat unbalanced. On the one hand we have a 10-page paper, slight not only in number of pages, with only a small number of short references, on the other a 40 page paper with 117, often hefty, footnotes. In what follows, I will not discuss at length the two articles that focus on Isiac religion: one by Frederick E. Brenk on the Isis sanctuary in the Campus Martius in Rome, the other by Elina Lapinoja-Pitkänen on the Serapeia on the Isle of Delos—both of which are excellent but only indirectly relevant for the main theme. Not relevant at all, unless I have missed something, is Jonathan Poletti’s contribution about the Dead Sea Scrolls which is an intriguing account of how, where, and when the scrolls were found, or rather were said to have been found. Poletti clearly outlines the serious problems we face when dealing with unprovenanced finds (in addition to the Scrolls, he mentions the Coptic codices from Egypt).

That brings us to the nine contributions that deal with Christianity within its Umfeld. Three focus on Jesus and/or the Evangelists. Peter Bolt argues convincingly that daimones are in the Greco-Roman world generally understood to be ghosts, spirits of the dead. Although the ideas about daimones are shifting exactly in the period we are dealing with, Bolt suggests that in popular thought as opposed to philosophical discourse, a daimon was still seen as a ghost. Exorcisms by Jesus, as related by Mark, align with such popular ideas. But Jesus goes one better, compared to other exorcists: he has risen from the dead himself. Adam Wright discusses, not very originally, Jesus as an example of the heroic archetype. To notice, in the Evangelists’ stories, certain patterns that also occur in the myths about heroes, is one thing. It is quite another, as Wright does, to speak about psychological experiences common to all mankind, arising from a universal “fear anxiety” caused by our mortality, referencing J.G. Frazer, Joseph Campbell and, obviously, Carl Jung. There I am afraid I have to quit. The third paper on Jesus is a lengthy and learned contribution by Craig Evans. He discusses semeia: omens, portents and prophecies. He first establishes the importance of semeia, especially in the context of governance, by working his way from Caesar to Vespasian. He discusses claims to power by the living and zooms in on apotheoseis and post-apotheosis appearances by the deceased: the template for this he finds in Romulus. The stories about the birth of Jesus and the Passion show striking parallels with the stories about Romulus. They do, although this was already said by Wendy Cotter over 20 years ago. She is duly referenced, but only towards the very end of the paper. In the same vein Jeff Pettis looks at James and John, whom Mark calls Boanerges: “sons of the thunder”, i.e. “sons of Zeus”, i.e. the Dioscuri. Concerning James and John, there is a lot of Dioscuric imagery in the sources: twins who have to do with flight, ascent, fire—and, mentioned somewhat in passing, destruction and protection. The paper is rather speculative, but certainly opens up interesting vistas.

Two papers deal with Paul: Alexa Wallace and Adam Wright argue that Paul, who shows himself to be well-versed in Aristotelian rhetoric (they trace the rhetorical devices of Ethos, Pathos and Logos in his work), studied rhetoric in Tarsus, which was something of a centre for rhetorical studies. There is circumstantial evidence only, but it could have been Tarsus. Wallace and Wright, however, state something of larger import: “Are such distinctions [between Greek, Roman and Jewish] even necessary for determining what he [Paul] said in his Letters?” (123). I doubt whether they fully realized what they are saying here: we will come back to it below. Chris Stevens paints, on the basis of a single text, a very rosy picture of Paul’s insistence, unique in the so-called androcentric universe of Antiquity, that elderly women should be enlisted as teachers. We may doubt both the unicity and the actual implementation of Paul’s exhortation. These gender issues carry with them many snags and pitfalls that Stevens mentions but does not manage to avoid. He is very right, however, in saying that we should move beyond discussions of inclusion or exclusion, and look at what roles individuals play. He himself might have paid more attention to such roles played by particular women in a polytheistic context, other than his whirlwind overview of women and pagan religion that is in fact very much about in/exclusion.

Susanne Luther contributes a paper on curse tablets (which also made an appearance in the paper by Bolt). Luther states that defixiones have been “widely neglected in New Testament studies”, which is true (but again rather shocking when you come to think about it), and may be the reason that there is a lot of basic information on ancient curses in this paper. At the same time, the important distinction between binding curses proper and prayers for justice, for which one should see a range of publications by H.S. Versnel,  is lacking (even if “Gebete um Gerechtigkeit” are mentioned in a reference (139 n.27)). New Testament texts show Christians rejecting but at the same time using the ancient cursing tradition. However, they adapt what they borrow, managing to turn the way they relate to cursing into a Christian identity marker.[1]

In a lengthy, wide-ranging paper by Roj Kotansky on the hymn quoted in 1 Tim. 3:16, he analyses these verses in the context of the technopaignia of Hellenistic poetry and so-called magical papyri. Kotansky argues that the hymn consists of two stanzas of 22 syllables each, which can be arranged on papyrus in a cross shape. He ascribes this hidden message of the cross, and the hymn’s silence on several things that would be immediately recognizable as Christian to persecution. “Persecution” is not an unproblematic notion, however, and it seems unlikely that would-be persecutors wanting to sniff out Christians would be so easily thrown off track. But if we forget about the persecution, the paper still has a lot of interesting detail to offer.

Richard Wright has an interesting paper on atheism: taking his cue from Lucian’s Life of Alexander of Abonoteichos and its “Out with atheists, Epicureans and Christians”, he studies who would be called an atheist and why. He argues (versus Whitmarsh) that, before the 2nd century C.E., Epicureans are labelled ‘atheists’ because they deny an essential element of ancient religion: reciprocity between humans and gods. Christians can be seen to defend themselves against the charge of atheism—except that they are never charged with that, but with adhering to a superstitio. Now atheism is associated with intellectuals, who think too much, and superstitio with being a weird outsider who thinks not enough. The Christians co-opt the pagan discourse: they want to be seen as equal partners in the debate, and to direct the debate towards their theological ideas. Of course, in the first two centuries C.E. the pagans are not very responsive: they show no interest in Christian theology and would rather discuss orgies and cannibalism.

Is all of the above innovative? In terms of detail, yes, there are many interesting titbits, but one cannot possibly be innovative about the main theme of the volume: a complete library that is sadly underused here has been already written about it. One can only think of the Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum (a mere three references in this volume) and the Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum (no references at all). Despite the 500 names in the index of modern authors (one of two indices: the other is an index locorum), there are some very relevant authors who appear to have been studiously avoided, for instance Ramsay MacMullen (no reference) or Wayne Meeks (a single reference). It is odd to write about curses and not to mention H.S. Versnel even once, and so and so forth. There has been little involvement from or engagement with ancient historians (or archaeologists), while “contexts” is what the volume under review is all about.

More fundamental is the, possibly related, problem that the whole premise on which this collection is built—viz. that polytheistic tradition “functioned as a model for Jewish and Christian practices”—may be faulty. Most papers look for such models, and for unidirectional influence. Wallace and Wright apparently felt a bit uncomfortable with this: when they doubt whether  “such distinctions [between Greek, Roman and Jewish] [are] even necessary for determining what he [Paul] said in his Letters”,  their doubt is justified. And we might push on and replace “necessary” with “helpful”, as well as replacing what Paul said or wrote with all of early Christianity in general. Should not the fact that parallels are discovered left and right be explained by the fact that Jews, Christians and pagans in the first centuries C.E. in fact shared in one common culture—even if they might very well have denied this themselves? This is not to say that there were no differences. There were lots of differences, and not just between those three presumed groupings, because ‘Jewish’, ‘Christian’, and ‘pagan’ do not exist as homogenous categories either. Are these categories parallels and this interplay not self-evident? That is to say, Christians and Jews and pagans employ curses because everyone does and the language they use in cursing is quite comparable. This is simply because there is no real alternative readily available.

All of this does not detract from the interest of several of the papers, but one might want to see the results put in a new framework. The time may have come to look at what different groups in the ancient world choose from the grab bag of their shared culture, instead of looking at whether and how the one cultural entity impacted the other. There are countless examples of this sort of interaction because actually they were not separate entities at all. If someone in the ancient world would come up with something completely unparalleled, now that would be interesting.


Authors and Titles

1: The Isis Temple in the Campus Martius in Rome: Place, Space, and Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean World – Frederick E. Brenk
2: The Myth of the Diasporic Isiac-Family as Reflected in the Epigraphical Evidence Connected to the Delian Sarapeia – Elina Lapinoja-Pitkänen
3: Jesus, the Daimons and the Dead – Peter G. Bolt
4: Jesus and the Archetypes: A Study of the Heroic Archetype – Adam Z. Wright
5: Fiery Twins: James, John, and the Sons of Zeus – Jeff Pettis
6: Romulus, Roman Omens, and the Portents of the Birth and Passion of Jesus – Craig A. Evans
7: Learning Rhetoric at Tarsus: The Apostle Paul and His Use of Aristotelian Rhetoric – Alexa Wallace and Adam Z. Wright
8: Early Christian “Binding Spells”? The Formulas in 1 Cor 12:3 Read Against the Background of Ancient Curse Tablets – Susanne Luther
9: Paul as the Originator of Women Teachers within Religious Circles – Chris S. Stevens
10: The Secret of the Hidden Cross: The Form, Meaning and Background of the Hellenistic Hymn Quoted in 1 Timothy 3:16 – Roy D. Kotansky
11: “Out with the Christians … Our with the Epicureans!” Atheism and Constructing the Other in Antiquity – Richard A. Wright
12: Jinn and the Myth of the Shepherd – Jonathan Poletti



[1] see now Michael Hölscher, Markus Lau & Susanne Luther (eds.), Antike Fluchtafeln und das Neue Testament.  Materialität—Ritualpraxis—Texte, Tübingen 2022 Mohr Siebeck)